By Karlene Skretting
Westwind Weekly News
Magrath has the exciting opportunity to be the future home to a grouping of several state-of-the-art fruit and vegetable green houses. Ag Spectra Ltd. has approached the town and the two parties are committed to finalizing an agreement with mutually beneficial terms to make the project a reality.
Councilor Brian Oliver made a motion on May 26 to move forward with a formal agreement to lease 20 acres of land by In-Line Ovals to Ag Spectra. All of council voted in favour.
“There are many questions left to be answered before we formally sign an agreement,” said Counc. Brenda Beck. “We are looking around to see who they are as a company and to ensure it would be a good fit for Magrath.”
Lonnie Mesick, Ag Spectra Ltd. CEO and director said that he chose Magrath to build the first Starfield Centre of greenhouses, and later serve as the central hub when he expands to other southern Alberta communities, because he sees Magrath as a leader that other towns want to follow.
He also noted that the opportunity will help Magrath live up to their vision of being the Garden City.
“Starfield Centre is many centres. This will be Starfield Centre Magrath. This is the first one in the region and then other towns will follow. The Magrath greenhouses will be one of the largest in Canada.”
The total size of the greenhouses will cover about 20 acres, explained Mesick, with each greenhouse about 1.5 acres in size. There will be an orchard house, berry house and veggie house amongst others.
“They are talking about land that we have really struggled to figure out exactly what to do with because there is so much need for drainage,” explained Coun. Beck. Any development out there would require a very high amount of drainage because of the runoff from other areas that gather there.”
So far Ag Spectra plans to lease the land by offering a percentage of the profits or by providing scholarships and bursaries to local students pursuing post secondary, but this is one of the terms that is still under negotiation.
Council likes the fact that Ag Spectra has the technology and knowledge to use the runoff water in the greenhouses to water the produce after they filter and clean it.
Ag Spectra does not plan to drastically change the surface of the
land and will only slightly level certain areas to make room for their buildings, said Coun. Beck.
“If they can’t get something going in five years they have the idea that the land just comes back to the town,” explained Counc. Beck.
Mesick is optimistic about the future and hopes to have the $1.8 million in funding required for the project in place to break ground by September.
One of the biggest differences in the way Ag Spectra runs green houses is their focus on polyculture and growing compatible plants together in a single greenhouse to increase yields. Other greenhouses are monoculture and specialize in a single fruit or vegetable throughout.
For example, not only will the berry house feature raspberries, blueberries and lignonberries, but it will also feature rhubarb and various mushrooms. “The berry house will also feature potted garlic and chives to keep possible bugs away.”
Mesick has had success with polyculture greenhouses in parts of Asia and wants to bring the idea to North America and make Alberta an export rather than import province.
“We import at least 50 trucks of greens from across the boarder every day. There is no reason it can’t be grown here.”
The produce will be available for local purchase and there is the possibility of making the old Home Hardware building behind Roosters into a market restaurant that will sell the fresh fruit and vegetables as well as menu items created from the fresh produce shared Mesick.
“Probably what’s most exciting to me is the employment opportunities that they would bring to the community and that it dovetails right into the project that we are working on with the CTS project at the school,” said Beck.
The Starfield Centre will create the equivalent of 60 full time jobs in Magrath that would be suitable for people of a large age range and level of education.
“A lot of people work outside the community and would probably like to work closer to home if they could,” said Mesick.
Mesick feels that the community also has a lot to offer in the sense that Magrath is home to a lot of retired people, stay at home moms and students who may be looking for part time employment.
There will also be educational opportunities made available to students and adults.
“The ability to bring post secondary education to smaller communities, I believe is important. We always try to partner with the university and colleges,” said Mesick.
The Starfield Centre’s governance model will consist of seven members on a core sustainability board including an Ag Spectra member, regional representative, educational leader, a local manufacturer and supplier representative, work force member. researcher and environmental person.
“To me that is pretty socially advanced for a company. They have done some tremendous thinking about this model. When we look at it as a town, what do we have to lose,” noted Coun. Beck.